After launching a restaurant on the Chelsea site where his career began, Gordon Ramsay muses on how far he has come since his days at the Aubergine, as Catherine McCabe finds out
If chefs were to regale their children with dramatic foodie bedtime stories, the tale of Aubergine restaurant would be the big finish. Its history is consumed with gourmet fables. Back in 1993, when he was just 26 and the protégé of Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay was appointed head chef at the restaurant. White had originally recommended Ramsay to the owners, but the two chefs went on to have a very public fall out years later.
The Aubergine was the definition of fine dining in the 90s, taking bookings up to six months in advance; serving up dishes to Princess Diana, Tony Blair, and the odd Spice Girl. But Ramsay wouldn’t have his ambitions contained by the trappings of a big restaurant group. Or at least, not one owned by somebody else.
In 1998, he resigned, and the kitchen staff, loyal to the chef, walked with him, resulting in a temporary closure. In the Channel 4 series Boiling Point, its first episode covered the story of the Aubergine scandal, and followed a young, fiercely determined Ramsay trying to set up on his own. With personal savings and a ‘frightening’ bank loan, he bought the site of Pierre Koffmann’s La Tante Claire, giving himself six weeks to gut, decorate and launch the venue. In Boiling Point, Ramsay told the crew, ‘you don’t become a three star chef in a large corporate set up.’ Three Michelin stars was the end goal of this risky move, and that’s exactly what he got.
The Aubergine walk-out led to Restaurant Gordon Ramsay on Royal Hospital Road in Chelsea, the venue that placed his name on an international platform, and became the flagship for the restaurant empire he controls today.
Following more than two years of talks with the previous owners, Ramsay has returned to where it all began, launching a new restaurant on the original Aubergine site, 11 Park Walk.
The venue, maze Grill Park Walk aims to mirror the grill rooms of Manhattan, serving dishes like triple-seared wagyu aged in a Himalayan salt brick and a selection of sashimi. Just a short walk away, he has added another piece to the puzzle with maze Grill Royal Hospital Road, which opened in May. What is it about the Chelsea postcode that keeps Gordon coming back? We questioned the controversial chef to find out more…
Why was it important to you to launch at the original site of the Aubergine?
It was 21 years ago that I first started there and it’s a site that is really close to my heart with so many fond memories. I got my first Michelin star there in 1995, and I’m excited to be returning with a different concept. It’s amazing to reflect on how far we’ve come.
How has the Chelsea of those 1990s days changed in your eyes?
I have a very nostalgic view of Chelsea in the 1990s and it will always be a special time and place for me. However, things evolve and Chelsea has become a much more intimate neighbourhood for dining – customers are so happy and grateful to step out of their homes and have great options right on their doorstep. The maze Grill in Chelsea represents the cosy restaurant experience that diners are looking for, in keeping with the strong community feeling. And of course, Chelsea Football Club is performing better than it did in the 90s!
What drew you to the American steakhouse style of maze Grill?
Having travelled extensively back and forth to the USA over the past 10 years, I became really excited and enthused by the high standard of the steak houses across America. It was natural to want to bring it back to London and I find the sushi and steak combination in our maze Grill restaurants a refreshing concept.
Aside from your own, what restaurants do you rate in London and why?
There are so many great restaurants in London worthy of a mention but I particularly love Scott’s for fish, Ollie Dabbous’ eponymous restaurant for a special treat with my wife, and The Dairy in Clapham as my go-to local with my family. London is teeming with fantastic options to eat – in my view it is the best it has ever been.
There have been a lot of new restaurant openings in Chelsea recently – Polpo, The Ivy Chelsea Garden and others. Do you think the food scene in the area is changing?
Chelsea has always been a foodie heaven and it will never change in that respect. Since my days at Aubergine, the competition has been really healthy and in my view, the more restaurants, the merrier.
What would you say is the biggest misconception people tend to have about you?
In general people see my frustration in the kitchen as anger, but really it’s just intense passion. It’s no different than a coach on a field with his team. But honestly, I’m not like that all the time! I’m actually quite a softy, especially at home.
Which food critic’s opinion do you most respect and why?
Our customers! They are our toughest and best critics.
What’s your earliest memory of cooking a full meal, what was the recipe?
My childhood favourite is mum’s shepherd’s pie, Yorkshire pudding and roasted potatoes. I remember coming home from school and going to the kitchen to help her. It’s because of her that I discovered my love for cooking.
Your wife Tana has released a number of cookery books. How do you differ in the kitchen?
Tana’s books have been a huge success and she has really captured the domestic cooking scene. We’ve both written many cookbooks over the years and both our styles are accessible to home cooks but the main difference is that Tana’s style is much less fussy and more straightforward than mine. I love to focus on slightly more technically challenging dishes with more complex flavour profiles.
Your daughter Matilda has her own cooking show on CBBC, what advice did you give her?
We give all of our kids the same advice: to keep trying, and never give up.
When did Matilda first show an interest in cooking?
Tana and I have always wanted our kids to understand where food came from so they knew not to waste it. From a young age, they grew up around chickens, pigs and turkeys in the garden. We would discuss where meat came from and how their pets were going to become tasty sausages. Tilly [Matilda] showed an interest in baking and then she learned how to have fun with it. Then she tried experimenting with different recipes. She has many interests but would rather be in the kitchen whipping up a new dish.
Maze Grill Park Walk and maze Grill Royal Hospital Road are open now; maze Grill 11 Park Walk, Chelsea SW10 0AJ and 79 Royal Hospital Road SW3 4HN; gordonramsay.com